Long Live the Back of the Queen’s Head

She’s ready!

This time last week we were all going back to work here after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  Elizabeth II is only the second monarch to make it to a diamond jubilee, which marks 60 years on the throne, and Britons turned out for four days of festivities.  I was lucky to get an invitation to a party on Sunday afternoon in a third floor flat (that is, UK third floor/US fourth floor) facing the Thames and, across the river, the Houses of Parliament, so I had a better view of the Jubilee flotilla than I could ever have hoped for.  The police estimated that a million people lined the river as over 1000 boats escorted the Queen down the Thames from Chelsea Pier to Tower Bridge.

The scene at Lambeth Bridge

We arrived early and mingled with the crowd on the Embankment (raised land with riverside walk on the south side of the river).  It wasn’t as jam-packed as we’d expected; a police cadet told us they expected twice as many people to come to the next day’s concert of music from the past 60 years, with Paul McCartney and other megastars none of whom are, as far as we know, the queen’s cup of tea; newspapers reported that the only song the Queen is ever known to have requested is Some Enchanted Evening.

One of many union flag leggings styles

Union flags were everywhere.  I’ve said before that it’s not a union jack unless its flown from a jack (a short mast) on a ship; I don’t think there’s a term for the union flag when its found sprouting from a young lady’s hair, or printed on her leggings. One girl wore a union flag bowler hat and union flag cape over leggings with heart-shaped union flags, which might have been overdoing it just a tad.

Bobbies (including one Sikh constable in a turban rather than the traditional helmet)

The police were there in amazing numbers.  Waiting on a median for a break in the traffic, I realized I was standing with my husband, no other civilians, and seven police constables.  I said “Two of us, and seven of you?” and one laughed and said “Do you feel safe?” and told us to have a nice day.

An inflated union-flag instrument gives new meaning to the term ‘air guitar’

The crowd was too cheerful to be unruly.  We saw teenaged girls spray painting their hair in red and blue stripes.  Young men wore masks with the faces of the royal family, but on the backs of their heads—go figure.  I wish I’d snapped a picture of the lady with the inflatable corgi—corgi-coloured, thank goodness, rather than red, white and blue.

Pearly Queens!

And I spotted the Pearly Queens of Bow and of Tower Hamlets!  I’ll do a full post sometime on pearlies; for now, I’ll say they’re traditional London working-class charity fundraisers who wear black clothes covered with hundreds of mother-of-pearl buttons; there’s a Pearly King, Pearly Queen, or both for each London borough.  Pearlies are legendary, especially in the East End, but I’d never seen one.  These were queueing up to buy cups of tea, and I went over to chat; they were very patient with all the people who wanted to have their pictures taken with unique (and shiny) local celebrities…

View of the back of the Pearly Queens’ costumes; note the bells near the word Bow. To be a true Cockney, you must have been born within the sound of Bow Bells — I’ll tell you more another time.

…including a couple of drunken Glaswegians.  Sorry, Glasgow, I know it’s a stereotype, but in this case it was true, which I know because one of them latched onto us next; he was perfectly polite and courteous, a very happy drunk and clearly a nice guy, but he wouldn’t shut up and wouldn’t leave us alone.  The other one started the Cockney song Doing the Lambeth Walk, the pearlies and the crowd joined in, and even people who didn’t know the words could come out with an enthusiastic “Oy!” at the end of each chorus.

To get a spot on the railing, these ladies must have been up early, or possibly all night

Meanwhile upstream, the queen boarded a launch to take her to the Spirit of Chartwell, a luxurious commercial pleasure boat (lunch aboard on a normal day starts at about $180 per person) designated as the Royal Barge for the day.  The Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry would spend the afternoon on board.

These flags, provided by the Daily Mail newspaper, were everywhere, though this was the only one I saw as part of a hairstyle

The same footmen in red coats who normally accompany the Queen when she’s in a horse-drawn carriage (well, officially they’re boxmen, and no, I don’t know the difference) stood on each side of the launch; that’s because they’re not ordinary footmen/boxmen, but are really the Queen’s Watermen.  The Watermen’s onshore duties include such things as guarding the crown jewels whenever they’re taken out of the Tower of London, but they originally had routine work to do whenever the monarch was afloat; for centuries, the Thames was not only a working waterway, but a quick way to move around town, and the place for royal pageants. The Queen’s Watermen answer to the Queen’s Bargemaster, a position created in 1215.

With a million people, the crowd was as big as a good-sized town, and there would inevitably be accidents and health problems, so there were regular ambulances, and this motorcycle ambulance, and…

In any case, I’m glad I wasn’t in charge of that launch.  Whoever was at the wheel had to bring the boat around and tie up beside the Royal Barge without bumping the barge or jarring the passengers, exactly aligning the steps up from the launch’s deck with the steps to the barge.  Talk about parallel parking while someone is watching!

…and St John’s Ambulance Brigade ambulances, in the form of regular ambulance vans and this bicycle ambulance, which the emergency med tech told us was even equipped with defibrillators and oxygen.  The St John Ambulance Brigade is a charity, and all the workers are volunteers.

So the royals took their positions for an afternoon’s work.  Okay, it ain’t digging ditches, but I call having to get dressed up and go stand where you’re told and wave at strangers all day work.  They waved at the all the rowed or paddled craft as those went by; then, when the Royal Barge cast off and took up its position leading the rest of the flotilla, they waved at the citizens lining the banks; and finally, once moored at Tower Bridge, they waved at all the motorcraft that had been following them, until the last one went by.

Boats representing Commonwealth countries; the flags are from Botswana, Belize, and Barbados

Participating boats were all inspected in the run-up to the event, and just in case a motor were to conk out or a rower were to have a coronary, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was out in force, its lifeboats patroling the edges of the river, the crews ready to give aid to rowers or to tow a disabled motorboat the rest of the way.

More Commonwealth flags, this time Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, and Ghana, with bits of the flags of India, the Gambia, and the Fiji Islands just visible (yes, I did have to look them all up)

A floating belfry with eight bells came first.  Barges of musicians were scattered through the line, with a small orchestra made up of players from the London Philharmonic bringing up the rear.  The award for the most multicultural vessel has got to go to the City Alpha, carrying the Shree Muktajeevan Pipe Band & Dhol Ensemble—70 musicians playing bagpipes, western drums, and double-ended Indian barrel drums (dhol).  The official listing says they played “Indian and Scottish tunes”, but the one snatch of music I heard from them was Camptown Races (written by Stephen Collins Foster, neither Scottish nor Indian, but the composer of My Old Kentucky Home.)

Maori war canoe; I’m sorry you can’t see the bright colors worn by the coxswain (who’s probably not called the coxswain — oh, well)

The bells themselves were newly made in a bell foundry that’s been in operation since 1570.  British bells have names; these are named for the eight major members of the royal family.  (I mentioned only 7 on the Royal Barge, because Princess Anne, as patron of Trinity House, which maintains UK lighthouses, rode on a Trinity House boat.) The actor John Barrowman (born Scotland, raised Illinois) rode along with the bells to provide commentary for the BBC or, as one television comedian had it, to put the camp in campanology (the science of bells and bell-ringing).

The Gloriana, blurred by a quick shower of rain

The newly built Gloriana followed the bells, with a crew of British Olympic medalists and disabled veterans. The Gloriana, commissioned by a few people with deep pockets, was given to Her Majesty after the Jubilee.

Crowded conditions

Then came every kind of human-powered skiff, gig, currach and cutter you can imagine, plus at least one each of Maori canoe, Venetian gondola, Chinese dragonboat, Shetland Yoal, Tanzanian whaler, Viking longboat, and something called a shallop.  Crews ranged from breast cancer survivors to Royal Navy ratings to swan uppers.  (Pretty much all swans in open water in the UK belong to the queen, and swan upping is the annual ceremony of catching them and putting tags on their legs.) There was even a kayak paddled by two San Francisco doctors, invited because the officials thought it was great that they wanted to come from so far away. (There were four applications for every invitation.)

The Royal Barge — all the fuss is about that tiny figure in white on the topmost deck.  Apologies for the blurry photo; the automatic camera decided to focus on the poles in the foreground, I’m afraid.

At last the Royal Barge came into view, and we could finally see— the back of the Queen’s head.  When she passed us, she was waving to the MPs and Lords on the riverside terrace of the Houses of Parliament.

Fireboats showing off

If I name the other boats, I’ll never finish.  There were historic vessels, including some of the craft always called “little ships” that evacuated British forces from Dunkirk, and working tugs, steamboats, firefighting boats spraying water from their hoses, police boats, lifeboats, hovercraft, you name it.  Sea cadets piloted a fleet of boats flying the flags of Commonwealth countries.  I particularly liked the narrowboats; up to 70 feet long but only 6′ 9″ wide, they were built to navigate Britain’s system of inland waterways and man-made canals.  It took well over an hour for them all to pass by—and that’s without the ships of the Avenue of Sail, a collection of vessels with masts too high to fit under the bridges.  They all had to stay together downstream.

Narrowboats — not over 6’9″ wide.  One-time working barges, these are mostly rented as holiday craft, though there’s a move to save petrol (gas) by going back to barges instead of hauling goods down the motorways.

Also downstream, protesters staged a small anti-royal demonstration.  The Guardian newspaper’s website accommodated such people by offering a button to click, which prevented display of any Jubilee-related stories.  I rather enjoyed the festivities, and only quibble at the move afoot in Parliament to rename the Clock Tower as Elizabeth Tower. (That’s the tower housing Big Ben—I said English bells had their own names.)  But that’s going too far; the tower stands for Britishness in a way that goes beyond any one person, even a long-reigning, well-respected queen.  (As it happens, Starbucks had a little misunderstanding about Britishness in conjunction with the Jubilee, too; the company asked its customers in the Irish Republic to tweet about how proud they are to be British. Oops.)

If the Queen makes it to age 95 years and 292 days, she’ll have a platinum jubilee.  It could happen; her own mother lived to almost 102.  Plenty of time, then, for me to track down my own inflatable corgi.



Filed under Culture, Current events

5 responses to “Long Live the Back of the Queen’s Head

  1. Malcolm

    You should have been doing the BBC commentary, Mary Ellen. What they served up was utterly lamentable. From the get-go, when the commentator told us that “Her Royal Highness” the Queen had arrived, one somehow knew that no one had researched or prepared anything. Those little boats that had been at Dunkirk in 1940 … there must have been dozens of fascinating stories there, yet not one of them was told. But there had been some planning. Someone decided that a 4 mph parade of 1,000 little boats was going to be b-o-r-i-n-g, so they prepared side shows for our distraction–a mad professor who gave the history of the Thames in sixty seconds, with a clothes-peg on his nose; a bunch of comedians below decks somewhere (on whom the sound link mercifully gave up); a chef (wouldn’tcha know it!) with special seafood–or riverfood–dishes; a naval expert who couldn’t read the semaphoring flags on the Royal Festival Hall, and something that defies description and beggars belief going on in Battersea Park. They told us there were nine musical barges; the BBC managed to find two–one of which was easy because it was the last. The Queen and her entourage stood for four hours but no one should have to stand for such a shocking abdication of all its former standards by the BBC. They should be forced to put this blog on their website with those jubilee bells as a ringing accompaniment!

    • Thanks, Malcolm! As for the queen standing — the Royal Barge did have a couple of thrones on it, but I don’t think anybody ever caught them sitting down.

      And for American readers who may not get the “Her Royal Highness” comment: the Queen is “Her Majesty”, never “Her Royal Highness”.

  2. Candida@tiptree.demon.co.uk

    Hah, I was going to say EXACTLY the same thing about the quality of this blog vs. the quality of the BBC coverage. It was probably a good thing that Radio 4 steered clear of the whole event (apart from the Ambridge decorations in The Archers), since even it is driven downmarket so often these days, but this is the sort of thing I would have expected of it. Excellent!
    I loved the Indian pipe and drum band in full tartan too. The flotilla was a bit of a gallery of Places We Have Marched Into: I suppose we must have done something right for so many of them to be happy to turn up and row in the rain for the Jubilee.
    eBay did better than Starbucks: for the UK they announced a “Queen’s Jubilee Special: 4 days zero insertion fee” while for ebay.ie it was just “4 days zero insertion fee”. But both announcements appeared on both websites, sort of negating the point of the effort.

  3. MFC

    I, too, am writing in for the purpose of noting the high quality of this blog. In my case, though, the comparison is with the drivel that BBC-America and CNN offered us here in the States. I mean, hours and hours on end, showing us the flotilla from every possible angle, and yet the commentary consistently ran along the lines of, ” Isn’t this just *marvelous*?! ”


    Nevertheless, we colonials here at our house loved watching it. And, now we greatly appreciate Mary Ellen’s entertaining contribution to our understanding of the event. Thanks!

  4. Lisa Walker

    Because of your blog, I recognized the Pearly Queens in the Olympic coverage. They were in the opening ceremony.

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